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Carnivaliant Efforts

On Sunday, I enjoyed a day that was a testament to the wondrous power of impulsively saying “yes” to things. God, what an appalling intro. I’ll try again.

Basically, last weekend I was feeling a little run down. Having come back from the Edinburgh Festival, getting back into the swing of everyday life was hard. I tend to feel a bit low after the end of a show, no doubt a psychiatrist could tell us more, and Edinburgh was such a surreal and crazy experience that it was doubly hard to accept the prospect of free evenings. Therefore, I’d been partying as hard as possible. Pimpstick Jr. had a boozy gathering at the Princess Louise in Holborn at which I got roundly hammered (and discovered that it is literally quicker to walk from Holborn to Waterloo than to get the Tube, but that’s another story). Tiny Emma came around on Saturday for a night of wine and Dark City (Emma is into films that “mess with reality,” and Dark City is a shining example of the genre). And then I got a text from Izzi inviting me along to Notting Hill Carnival the following day. I’d never been to the Carnival before, and I had nothing else to do, and Izzi’s company is never less than scintillating, and so I said yes. Tiny Emma, who does not frequent the Internet, thought this was incredibly short-term planning.

Sadly, when the day dawned, I was not in perhaps the best shape for the event.  Bloated, hungover and poor, Sunday morning was not my friend. Izzi and I met up, and she – who lives in the Western Zone of the city – explained how it goes. She also took the photos for this entry, by the way.

The Carnival has been running since 1959, and since then has grown to be one of London’s greatest excuses to let its collective hair down. Initially started in response to racial tensions in the area, it is now a celebration of Caribbean culture in the city and, indeed, of the city’s multi-culturalism in general. I did not steal any of that from a press release. This year, it enjoyed over a million attendants, of whom Izzi and Yr. Humble Chronicler were two.

Initially, I have to admit I was cynical (read: grumpy and hungover) – on the way from Notting Hill Gate, I was struck by the number of boarded-up shops and houses, and the number of makeshift stalls charging exorbitant amounts for food and beer (beer especially). But we got further in, and helped by a rum-filled coconut and the appearance of sunshine, I started to mellow out.

By the time we got to the parade route, I was definitely in the mood to party most hearty. Now I see what Polly Thomas meant in her essay, ‘Growing Up With Carnival’ (published in Miranda Davies and Sarah Anderson’s Inside Notting Hill):

“I’ve never been able to understand those joyless souls who don’t love Carnival, who refuse to get impossibly excited about the prospect of sharing their streets with some two million revellers intent on sticking two fingers up to the norm for a couple of days and letting it all hang out in public.”

Indeed so.

We strode along the route for some way towards Ladbroke Grove, enjoying the wind-baiting costumes and awesome Caribbean music, although that ‘Trini and Tobago’ song got a bit tedious the eighteenth time. An awful lot of people, us included, wound up smeared in chocolate (yes, it was definitely chocolate). Even the odd shower of rain could not dampen the mood, although I have to say the presence of baton-carrying police was slightly sinister. Izzi and I opined that the event would be improved if they started breakdancing.

Lunch consisted of curry goat, plantain and rice and beans, because why the hell not? Izzi was most pleased to bump into Mr Levi Roots, a saucy fellow indeed, hey nonny. Food was followed by booze and, of course, more dancing. In fact, so merry were we that we decided to continue partying in Bayswater after the parade had ended. At this point my memory grows hazy and fragmented, but for some reason my pupils have gone white and Bibles combust at my touch.

My last memory of the night was an amateurish attempt to sell me cocaine in Stockwell.

All in all, as Portobello Road degenerates into a row of chain stores, it’s good to be reminded that Notting Hill still retains some individuality. I think I’ll have to go again next year.

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Filed under 20th Century, Booze, Current events, London, Music, Notable Londoners, Notting Hill, tourism

Saints or Sinners?

I’ve bitched about the recent developments in Portobello Road before, and today I took a bit of a stroll around the area – I had the day off, as I was returning from a wedding in Sussex, and so I decided to make the most of it. Above you can see the most notorious recent development in Portobello Road, namely the All Saints store.

You know what really bugs me about this store, apart from its location, its size, the fact that it’s a chain store and the fact that its construction has been allowed? It’s the fact that not only have they had the gall to replace the old market stalls, but they’ve tried to make it whimsical and olde-worlde. The three shop fronts you see in that picture – the black one, the maroon one and the green one – are all the same store. And they’ve filled the windows with antique sewing machines (BECAUSE IT IS A CLOTHES SHOP YOU SEE).

I hate these chains that try to look like the independent shops they drive out of business. Starbucks with its cafe society decor, Burger King with its American diner theme. It sort of feels like rich folks slumming it for fun.

Having said that, if All Saints had built a garish and out-of-place regular shopfront, I’d be complaining about how they haven’t even tried to be in keeping with the area.

Screw All Saints, is what I’m trying to say here.

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Filed under Buildings and architecture, Crime, Current events, Disasters, Fashion and trends, Kensington, London, Markets, Notting Hill, Photos, Politics, Psychogeography, Shopping, tourism, Weird shops

Nightbusmare

London has no shortage of ghost stories. It’s almost inevitable in such a large, old and densely-populated city.

For instance, there’s the tale of Thomas Cox the hackney-cab driver, who picked up a passenger one night in Fleet Street who caused his horses a great deal of distress. When he went back to investigate, the passenger had turned into the apparition of a giant bear before vanishing in a flash of flame. This is coincidentally Yr. Humble Chronicler’s favourite way of fare-dodging, too.

Then there was the ghost of Old Jimmy Garlickhythe, an unknown medieval gentleman named after the church of St James Garlickhythe in which his mummified remains were displayed. His tomb was hit by a bomb in 1942, following which his ghost would appear around the church looking reproachful.

Bank Station, we are told, is haunted by a strange and unearthly sense of dread and misery, but this is actually normal for the Northern Line and is nothing to worry about.

If you believe in ghosts (Yr. Humble Chronicler remains sceptical), these are practically routine for the area. This is, after all, the City itself, dating back to the Romans.

On the left you may see a black-liveried Routemaster belonging to Ghost Bus Tours, and this reminded me of a particularly memorable haunting. This one didn’t take place in the City, but in the rather more suburban surroundings of North Kensington. This area, although historic enough, wasn’t really a part of London until the coming of the District Railway in the 1860s (Yr. Humble Chronicler was once able to impress a resident by guessing precisely the year in which her house was built, in what might have been the nerdiest chat-up technique ever).

The ghost in question was first noted in June 1934, when a motorist swerved off St. Mark’s Road at 1.15 a.m. for no apparent reason, hit a lamp post and was killed. The accident was a mystery. When the police appealed for information, a number of people came forward with the same somewhat bizarre suggestion. Namely, that the motorist had swerved to avoid a ghost.The ghost supposedly took the unlikely form of a Number 7 bus, and would always appear on St Mark’s Road (near Ladbroke Grove tube station, if you’re interested). It most commonly appeared at the junction with Cambridge Gardens, but could be sighted anywhere along St Mark’s Road between there and the junction with Chesterton Road. It would appear very suddenly, accounting for the motorist’s sudden swerve, and always at 1.15 a.m (this, you must remember, was long before the introduction of night buses). What was more, the driver appeared to be somewhat homicidal, and would apparently head straight for anyone witnessing his vehicle.

What led witnesses to think this was a ghost? These days, psychotically-driven late night buses are the norm, and the ghost would probably go unnoticed. In this case, the big thing that seems to have tipped people off that the bus was not all it seemed was the fact that it was painted in the livery of London General. In 1933, this company was taken over by London Transport. Frankly, this part of the story is the least spooky aspect for me – public transport vehicles taken over by new owners tend not to get repainted until they go to the works for a service.

Regardless, stories persisted – particularly after the inquest. Strangely enough, though, within ten years they had died down, and the ghost has not now been seen in more than half a century. Even the author of the book on London ghosts that I’m reading at the moment is sceptical as to whether there ever was a ghost bus. Sceptics suggested that it was perhaps a late night staff working or an optical illusion caused by tiredness and reflections, and the sudden appearance of the vehicle might be put down to the fact that that part of the road had notoriously poor visibility.

Knight buses, on the other hand, are very real.

Nevertheless, the story goes that that blind curve was rebuilt in part because of fears of the Ghost Bus. Perhaps so, although I would imagine that spooks or no, a blind curve that causes accidents is a bad thing.

Michael Moorcock briefly mentions the bus in his book Mother London – essential reading for any London enthusiast – adding the detail that “passengers foolish enough to board it are lost forever.”
The most exciting thing that has ever happened to me on a Number 7 bus was that time my bag got nicked.
Now I come to think of it, that wasn’t a Number 7 at all.

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Filed under 20th Century, Geography, History, Kensington, Literature, London, Occult, Paranormal, Psychogeography, Transport

An Unfashionable Opinion

I must apologise in advance if this entry is a little below the usual standard. I’m afraid I was out celebrating my birthday last night, and most enjoyable it was too. Kudos to all in attendance. Those not in attendance will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Anyway, the end result has been a hangover that feels as if someone is trying to pull my brain out of its skull cavity, and no attempts at a cure have so far worked. I’ve tried greasy food, caffeine, sugar, a long walk, going back to sleep and eating painkillers by the handful, and nothing has made more than a dent. The best cure, in my experience, is coconut milk, but I can’t find that for love nor money around here. I tried offering money first, then love, but it turns out my pallid and necrotic countenance is not as sensual as I had first thought.

So I’m going to go over a book I’ve been reading recently. It’s a little difficult to define a “London novel.” There must be thousands of books set at least in part in London. James Bond’s HQ is in London, but you’d hardly call his books “London books.” The Time Machine is set in London’s suburbia (and the ruins thereof), but again, you couldn’t say it’s a London novel.

I suppose my definition would be: could you set it anywhere else? In the case of, say, Oliver Twist, the setting is absolutely integral. You need the slums of Jacob’s Island, the respectable streets of Islington, the crossover-point that is the City, the roads and junctions. Their proximity and interrelationships are essential to the story. Oliver Twist is, therefore, a London novel.

The novel in question is London Fields by Martin Amis. Now, I know this is a very popular London novel, so when I say how much I didn’t like it, I’ll no doubt be accused of fashionably Amis-bashing, which seems to be the standard accusation levelled against those who dislike his work. But, well, I didn’t like it.

The story is told from four points of view. We have Keith Talent, a cheat (Amis’ term for a conman, italicised throughout the book), wannabe professional darts player and generally horrible individual. His reality is defined by the media – television programmes, tabloid newspapers and pornography – and so he can’t quite relate to society other than on those terms. Then you have Guy Clinch, a successful banker in a boring marriage with an out-of-control toddler. Then there’s Samson Young, a crap writer with an inferiority complex. Linking them all is the femme fatale, Nicola Six, who has decided that she wants to die. She manipulates the other three central characters with the aim of bringing about her own murder. Meanwhile, the city is in the grip of unspecified upcoming apocalypse, which is a Metaphor. Or the murder is the Metaphor for the upcoming apocalypse.

Now, I’ll admit that Amis isn’t all bad. There was, for instance, a joke I laughed at. But the characters are so broadly caricatured, and so obviously designed to serve a purpose, that I just couldn’t give a toss about them. And yes, I know the characters aren’t supposed to be likeable, but even an unlikeable character should have enough depth to allow you to identify. The most irritating of all, I think, is Clinch’s toddler, Marmaduke, whose havoc starts out as entertaining, then surprising, then finally tiresome and predictable.

The get-out-of-jail-free card is that Amis is writing about writing. Samson Young is a writer adapting Six’ life into a novel in an effort to prop up his career. He’s in a rivalry with the more successful Mark Asprey, whose supposedly real-life exploits are as real as his fiction, and by the same token we can never be sure which version of events is the one actually taking place.

I’m not a fan of writing about writing. I mean, yes, the unreliable narrator device is an interesting one, but too often writers-who-write-about-writers disappear up their own literary arses. Your book was remaindered? Baaaaaawww!

Then there’s the device of the self-insertion. If I was a publisher, the moment an author inserted themselves into a story I’d reject the manuscript. Amis is more blatant in Money, in which a version of the actual Martin Amis plays a significant role. In London Fields, you may have noticed some similarities between the names Martin Amis and Mark Asprey, the latter of whom signs his name as “MA.” What I hate about self-insertion is that ultimately, it carries the message, “Why, look at old Amis making fun of himself! What a jolly good chap he is!” Self-deprecation is all very well, but ultimately it’s still on your terms.

So, back to my earlier question. Is this a London novel? Well, it’s set in London. It’s not, as the title would suggest, an East London book, the title simply referring to Young’s unattainable desire to revisit childhood memories. The book, in fact, is set largely in and around Ladbroke Grove and Kensington, in a version of London that doesn’t really exist. The London of this book is a purely symbolic presence, having little to do with the real city (Amis’ version of Great Ormond Street Hospital, for instance, differs significantly from the one in our universe). The setting doesn’t reflect London so much as it does human society as a whole. Therefore, I don’t think it can justifiably be called a London novel – the grimy streets and upmarket residential districts are called London seemingly for convenience.

On that bad-tempered note, I’m back off to bed. In conclusion, Amis is annoying.

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Filed under 20th Century, Geography, History, Kensington, Lies, Literature, London, Notting Hill, Psychogeography, Rambling on and on